Loosely masquerading as armadillos in shape and appearance, pangolins actually fall within the order Pholidota and are dressed in overlapping scales that provide camouflage and protection. A lack of teeth suits the pangolin well considering their diet of ants and termites, which is collected by a tongue that can extend as far as 10 inches.
But, their defensive scales and camouflage are no match for the illegal wildlife trade that has infiltrated Southeast Asia in an attempt to quell Chinese and other Asian demands for this unique creature. Considered a delicacy and ingredient in traditional medicines, pangolin survival is being thwarted by an increasing black market price to supply customers with meat, scales, and skins. As such, more than 30,000 pangolins were seize over the last 8.5 years and the IUCN reported “24 tonnes of frozen pangolins from Sumatra seized in Viet Nam and 14 tonnes of frozen animals seized in Sumatra in 2008.”
The problem is a general deficit of stringent laws to protect pangolins and a lackadaisical approach towards enforcement of those regulations currently in place.
“Pangolins, like the laws designed to protect them, lack bite,” says Chris Shepherd, Acting Director for TRAFFIC Southeast Asia. “Pangolin populations clearly cannot stand the incessant poaching pressure, which can only be stopped by decisive government-backed enforcement action in the region.”
According to pangolin hunters and traders, there are so few pangolins left in forests throughout Cambodia, Viet Nam and Lao PDR, they are now sourcing animals from their last remaining strongholds in Southeast Asia and beyond.
“Pangolins save us millions of dollars a year in pest destruction,” says Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “These shy creatures provide a vital service and we cannot afford to overlook their ecological role as natural controllers of termites and ants.”
The key to tackling the pangolin crisis is better enforcement of existing national and international laws designed to protect pangolins, better monitoring of the illegal trade, and basic research to find where viable pangolin populations still exist and whether ravaged populations can recover given adequate protection, according to the report. (IUCN, July 14, 2009)